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By Alan Jacobs

"Some Fanged Enemy of Christendom"

An exchange between Jeff Sharlet and Alan Jacobs.

Alan Jacobs' most recent essay on the Books and Culture website, "The Know–Nothing Party," marks the second time a publication in the Christianity Today family has distorted my work to heap disdain on Christians of whom mainstream evangelicalism is embarrassed. This is all the more remarkable given that I am a secular Jew and that in both instances, your writers were attempting to paint me as some fanged enemy of Christendom; and yet even my alleged villainy pales in comparison to the contempt for Christian thinkers expressed by CT/B&C's own writers.

In a cover story on Ted Haggard (before his difficulties), CT staffer Tim Stafford accused me of using "mostly scary atmospherics" to place Haggard on a "spectrum between the Grand Inquisitor and William Jennings Bryan." Besides the fact that my "atmospherics" included—independently of my analysis—nearly as many of Haggard's own words, quoted directly or neutrally paraphrased, as Stafford's entire article, I happen to be a great admirer of Bryan. In my forthcoming book, I characterize the Bryan–Darrow showdown as a tragic conflict between two champions of social justice, and I follow historian Michael Kazin in believing Bryan to have been one of the great voices of Christian witness in American history. CT, apparently, holds Bryan in less regard, evidently preferring the integrity modeled by Ted Haggard.

Now Alan Jacobs anoints me a member of a "Know–Nothing Party" that is waging "a war on religion." I hope someone will please notify the CT writers whom I've been proud to promote in the past that they are, in fact, part of an insidious plot to tear down not only their own faith but also religion itself. I can hardly be upset about this gross falsehood, however, given the bile Professor Jacobs drips on R.J. Rushdoony and Tim LaHaye. Now, I'm no admirer of either man, but I'd hardly call Rushdoony a "Dark Armenian–American Lord," as does Professor Jacobs in his rush to disassociate him from Francis Schaeffer. I mean, Rushdoony was a pretty authoritarian guy, but he was no Sauron. I will, however, insist on calling Schaeffer a student of Rushdoony's. He read Rushdoony, and taught some of his ideas. Rushdoony's emphasis on the importance of a providential reading of American history is, I believe, evident in Schaeffer's slightest but most popular work, A Christian Manifesto. Clearly, Schaeffer did not accept all or even the majority of Rushdoony's ideas. Fortunately, one can be a student of a thinker without signing a loyalty oath. As for the fact that Schaeffer was older than Rushdoony, which Professor Jacobs seems to think proves something, I am without adequate response; I had no idea that one's juniors can't influence one. Likewise Professor Jacobs' insistence that Schaeffer read Rushdoony late in his career (though not before he published his most popular book, I might add); is their an age cap on learning of which I've not been informed.

As for LaHaye, I'm willing to take the Left Behind author at his word with regard to his influences, if not his prophecies, which is more than Jacobs is willing to do for his ostensible co–religionist. LaHaye has written of his great debt to Schaeffer. Far be it from me to dispute him. Jacobs is a scholar of literature, so presumably he's familiar with literary influence—that is, how it works in mysterious ways. There are any number of novelists who name Faulkner or Hemingway as their guiding light, but very few of them would do their alleged ancestors proud. Intellectuals may claim ancestors, but they do not have the luxury of choosing their descendants.

LaHaye and Schaeffer are worlds apart theologically and intellectually, but LaHaye borrows from Schaeffer his understanding of providential history and his peculiar notion of "secular humanism" as some kind of monolithic philosophy. These are some of Schaeffer's more ill–informed arguments, but even so, LaHaye manages to dumb them down. His diminishment of Schaeffer's work evidently distresses Professor Jacobs, and thus he declares the idea of LaHaye as an intellectual and even spiritual descendant—a disciple—of Schaeffer simply impossible. Would that Faulkner were alive to say as much about Cormac McCarthy's late–career clichés.

Jacobs takes issue with my characterization of L'Abri as akin to a madrassah but does not elaborate. Apparently, to suggest that a Christian place of religious learning and debate has absolutely anything to do with an Islamic place of religious learning and debate is so patently absurd that it is not even worth discussing.

As for the rest of Professor Jacobs' points, they address none of mine, so I'll return the favor. Jacobs claims to have discovered all this secular idiocy in only two sentences of my article, and thus, he is free to ignore the other 8,000 words, in which I acknowledge the dispute over terms such as "fundamentalism" and explain why and how I use that word (most certainly not interchangeably with "religion," as Professor Jacobs suggests in a passage that borders on bigotry); argue that, contrary to liberal assumptions, adherents of fundamentalism as I define it have been a crucial part of American life since the beginning; chide secular education for ignoring this fact; and charge secular liberalism with indulging in distortions of history as great as those of "fundamentalists" who insist that separation of church and state is a myth or was only meant to protect the church from the state.

To be fair to Professor Jacobs, the bulk of the essay is dedicated to distortions of history I found in textbooks and curricular materials widely used by evangelical academies and Christian homeschoolers. I write that the Christian conservative political movement has manufactured a history of America that serves its contemporary political agenda (as has secular liberalism, though to lesser extent). That's not an attack; it's an argument, presented with 8,000 words of evidence. Professor Jacobs' account of my work, however, is based on a dubious reading of two sentences.

Rather than refute my argument, Professor Jacobs lumps me in with a group of writers I've neither read nor studied. In fact, I've published some sharp criticism by other writers of a few of them (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Dan Brown). So let's sum up: It's fair for Professor Jacobs to connect me with writers I've published criticism of, but it's not fair for me to connect LaHaye with a writer LaHaye claims as an inspiration. In closing, Professor Jacobs suggests that all critics of conservative evangelicalism's more militant strains are "largely or wholly innocent of religious culture, religious language, and religious belief." Apart from the facts that I've been reporting on American religious life for 12 years; and have spent time in countless churches, synagogues, and mosques; and have received praise for my first book from Christian writers (including CT writers! little did they know … ); and have been invited to speak to churches and church groups; and have spent many months researching in the archives of Professor Jacobs' own Wheaton College; and read the Bible nearly every day; and count among my favorite works of history studies by Christian scholars such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, Charles Marsh, and many others; apart from all this, I feel that as a Jew, a member of the "tribe" of skeptics when it comes to Christ's divinity, as Professor Jacobs puts it, I'm entitled to claim some minor "religious culture" of my own. Surely nothing compared to "long evenings before L'Abri's roaring fireplace," as Professor Jacobs rhapsodizes, but five millennia of history isn't bad.

To be fair to Professor Jacobs once again, maybe he didn't recognize that Sharlet is a Jewish name, or that Steven Pinker, another of his targets, is Jewish. Surely, he did not mean to sound like an anti–Semite, denouncing as enemies of religion all those who fail to worship God as Professor Jacobs defines him. Perhaps Professor Jacobs is simply innocent of religious culture, religious language, and religious belief.

Since the publication of "Through a Glass Darkly," I've had some wonderful conversations with evangelical friends and critics. They've deepened my understanding of the relationship between the ideas of Kuyper and Van Til, for instance, leading me to make changes and additions to the version of "Through a Glass" that'll appear in my forthcoming book. These respondents defended the ideas of Christian thinkers rather than attacking the character of non–Christian ones. Like both Jacobs and me, they're disturbed by Rushdoony's ideas and unhappy about the popularity of LaHaye's. But they recognize both men as part of their tradition, like it or not, and they have the courage to confront them rather than messengers from the outside. That type of response is as intelligent, engaged, and fruitful as it is Christian. Perhaps Professor Jacobs will consider it the next time he feels the need to teach the ignorant heathen a lesson.

—Jeff Sharlet

P.S.: The above is a slightly expanded version of a letter I first wrote to Professor Jacobs upon reading his essay. He generously agreed to allow me to neaten it up and publish it in his column. His response to it, for all I know, may be sharper than the first provocation, but granting me this space for rebuttal strikes me as an example of precisely the spirit his original column lacked, and I'm thankful for it.

* * *

First of all, I thank Jeff Sharlet for his reply, and for his willingness over the past few days to work with me to continue this conversation in what we both hope will be a constructive way.

Now, on to corrections and clarifications: I don't "drip bile" on Rushdoony; indeed, in my essay I make no judgment about him whatsoever, just as I make no judgment about Schaeffer. (Sharlet—I'm going to drop the "Mister" from here on out, for convenience, meaning no disrespect—assumes that I disdain the former and admire the latter, whereas my purpose was simply to distinguish their core ideas. It's true that I don't at all share Rushdoony's political theology, and if that theology had significantly more influence than the ideas of the Flat Earth Society I might be worried about it.) The "Dark Armenian–American Lord" line is my way of characterizing Sharlet's own portrayal of Rushdoony, which echoes the alarmist tone of other recent writers. (See, for instance, Max Blumenthal's 2004 story on Salon.com about Howard Ahmanson.) I think the tone of that passage will be clear to almost every reader.

Nor do I drip bile on Tim LaHaye, whom Sharlet for some reason calls my "ostensible coreligionist." As Tina Turner didn't quite sing, What's ostensible got to do with it? I'd prefer to say that he's my fellow Christian; I just try to have a little fun with the idea that he is Schaeffer's "disciple." I know that LaHaye read Schaeffer's Christian Manifesto, which is I think the only book of Schaeffer's that indicates a debt to Rushdoony—but Schaeffer published that book when he was seventy years old, less than two years before he died. It's not at all representative of his career, nor (for all its sales) has its influence been nearly as great as Schaeffer's lifelong quest to legitimate extended reflection on high culture for evangelicals who get nervous about such things. And it's hard to discern how that quest has marked Tim LaHaye at all.

Which leads me to Sharlet's claim that "Jacobs takes issue with my characterization of L'Abri as akin to a madrassah." No, I don't: I say nothing about that analogy. If I were to take issue with anything there it would be the notion that L'Abri was a madrassah for fundamentalists. L'Abri was, rather, a place for people emerging—some might say "recovering"—from fundamentalism, people who delighted to hear, from an obviously committed and biblically centered Christian pastor, that their interest in great art, music, and literature did not mark them as morally deficient and spiritually frivolous. And the setting of such a tone was Schaeffer's most lasting and significant contribution to American Christianity. I have serious reservations about Schaeffer's habits of mind—about the way he so doggedly pursued a dubious form of ideology critique—but at the time he developed it his model was (within the emerging evangelical world) new and exciting.

As for the "fanged enemy of Christendom" charge, I'm more likely to claim that title for myself, given the damage Christendom has inflicted on Christianity. Sharlet says that I lack "the courage to confront" fellow Christians whom I disagree with, but in fact I've devoted tens of thousands of words, written and spoken, to doing just that. (I could provide many links to back up this claim, but modesty forbids. There's always Google for the curious.) This impulse "to teach the ignorant heathen a lesson" is actually pretty rare for me, and so far it's not going too badly: Sharlet is a lot gentler than many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have been. But in any case there's no moral imperative to choose one or the other, is there? On what grounds does Sharlet believe it legitimate to criticize those who are "part of [our] tradition" but forbidden to criticize "messengers from the outside"? It seems to me that both are sometimes called for.

With some of these misunderstandings cleared up (I hope), I want to turn to a couple of issues that are more central (I think) to this debate.

Sharlet wants to reassert his claim that Schaeffer was Rushdoony's "student," but with a clarification: Schaeffer was Rushdoony's student in the highly metaphorical sense that he read and taught his works. Let's set aside the point that this definition would make me Jeff Sharlet's student, and instead ask this question: Would anyone reading Sharlet's essay for Harper's who is unfamiliar with the figures he describes not be misled by the claim that Schaeffer is "Rushdoony's most influential student"? Would anyone be able to discern that Sharlet was using the term "student" so loosely? Sharlet simply omits the facts (among them the relative ages of the two men he's describing) that might cast doubt on the case he's trying to make.

It is in this sense that I think I have cause to place Sharlet in the company of certain other recent writers about religion: Lee Silver, Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins. It is true that those other writers tend to spread their critique to religion in general, while Sharlet focuses on evangelical and fundamentalist Christians; but rhetorically they are brothers. In all cases, ideas and histories of enormous complexity are boiled down into a bland indistinguishable mush, stuffed into a casing, and served to readers who never suspect what went into the making of those intellectual sausages. Religion devalues life? Check. Scriptures teach intolerance? Check. Premillennial dispensationalism equals Reformed Dominionism? Check. In a society already bedeviled by culture wars, these writers further debase our national conversation by saying, "Yes, your religious neighbors are just as weird and threatening, or as backward and stupid, as you fear—maybe even more so."

However, there are two senses in which it is not fair for me to lump Sharlet in with those other writers; I am grateful for his response because it caused me to confront these errors. First, Sharlet is a skilled journalist who quite often allows the subjects of his stories to speak for themselves. As I have suggested above, I think the set–ups for his stories—the backgrounds and contexts he provides for them—tend to ensure that his readers will misinterpret much of what they hear (which is why I focused on a brief passage from the opening of his recent Harper's piece rather than the remaining 8,000 words), and I have serious reservations about his principles of selection: Sharlet has a Diane Arbus–like predilection for the weird and the outré. But even when the Christians Sharlet interviews say odd and troubling things, as they often do, at least they get to say them: at least they can be heard to have human voices. This is not something that the Dawkinses and the Pinkers typically grant to religious believers, probably because they don't know any. Or don't think they do.

I am still more troubled that I lumped Sharlet in with people who are "largely or wholly innocent of religious culture." That was a carelessness that I much regret. His own religious stance and cultural background were unknown to me until I read the comments above, and as it happens I did not know that Sharlet is a Jewish name: when I think of Jewish names I tend to come up with ones like, oh, I don't know, how about "Jacobs"? You don't have a name like Jacobs for nearly fifty years without learning a little something about anti–Semitism, especially when, as a prominent Jewish scholar once said to me, "You sure talk like a Jew." So whether "Sharlet" sounds Jewish or not, I certainly should have had the discernment to avoid that "innocent of religious culture" line. Dumb.

Moreover, while people like Dawkins and Sam Harris pride themselves on the purity of their secularism, their freedom from taint by religious experience or even interest in religion (except as a threat to human progress), Sharlet, as he indicates, actively and seriously studies religion—but this just makes me wonder why he gets so many things about evangelicalism and fundamentalism so wrong, and why he presents diverse figures as all part of a single common movement. Sharlet surely must know that Dominionists like Rushdoony believe that Christ will not return until his Church has established its rule, its Dominion, over the world; and he must also know that dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye believe that the Church will never establish such dominion, that the world will just become more and more of a mess until Christ returns to rescue, to judge, and to bring an end to history. It could not escape him that these vast differences in eschatology yield vastly different political programs—and if they don't, then that indicates a certain incoherence, a lack of fit between theology and practice, which renders doubtful the notion that theologians can be Svengalis to their "students" and "disciples."

So why darken counsel by trying to draw a straight line from Rushdoony to his "student" Schaeffer and on to Schaeffer's "disciple" LaHaye? It's grossly inaccurate and it creates a simplistic image of some United Front of fundamentalist politics, just as other writers have created an equally simplistic image of a homogeneous "Christian Right" that is anti–science. There's a great deal of solid research on American Christianity that clearly shows that the people Sharlet presents as representative figures are nothing of the kind; and when Christian Smith, in the article I just linked to, says that many recent writers about fundamentalists and evangelicals "are simply proceeding as if this body of published research does not exist," I think that's a pretty fair characterization of essays like "Through a Glass, Darkly." Sharlet is telling the readership of Harper's exactly what they want to hear about the Christians in their midst, and if he rightly protests that he is not himself a member of what my title calls "the Know–Nothing Party," I fear that he has become one of that party's chief recruiters.

As for me, enough of these polemics. They're bad for my digestion and probably equally bad for my character. In my first essay for this column I counseled taking the long view, practicing "the politics of long joy"; in the second I grudgingly acknowledged the validity of Christians' making relatively brief responses to their critics; and now I find myself getting more and more shortsighted, focusing on the debates of the moment and thereby putting myself in danger of being "of short joy bereft." Not that there's any real joy in these debates, even if you think you're winning. Mneh. Next time I'm going to write about drawing pictures.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.

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